Friday, Oct. 11, was National Coming Out Day in the U.S. This year marks the 31st observance, and while much has changed for the LGBT community in those decades, other things have stayed the same. Coming out is a heavy decision still fraught with fear for many. Openly identifying — or being identified — as LGBT still carries the potential to compromise people’s relationships, careers, or even their safety.
Celebrating National Coming Out Day is important, not just to recognize and validate experiences, but also to create a community that makes coming out safe for others. In the words of Sharon McGowan, “Every LGBT person who decides to come out and speak their truth makes a powerful decision to reject the shame that others would cast upon them, and in doing so, takes a step in the direction of justice and equality.”
However, the onus to drive change doesn’t, and shouldn’t, rest solely on the actions of individuals, or on members of the LGBT population. As company leaders, how can we do our part of the heavy lifting to create workplaces where everyone feels safe, seen, and accepted? Here are a few reasons why company culture should support employees who are coming out.
It prioritizes team diversity. There are a host of reasons that diversity is beneficial at work, not the least of which is that it correlates with better results. But when it comes to coming out, representation matters — a lot. Humans are social creatures, and being in the presence of others with shared identities or experiences can make a huge difference in our feeling of belonging at work— and the extent to which we are willing or able to be our authentic selves. Look at the makeup of your team, honestly assess its relative diversity or homogeneity, and be intentional about creating groups where people of all backgrounds and lived experiences are surrounded with — and empowered by — others “like them.”
It replaces norms with options. The act of coming out is courageous and commendable, but it’s also a sign of a heteronormative society. Because heterosexuality and male/female gender identification are considered to be the “normal” states, people who identify otherwise have to reveal themselves to be “different” through coming out.
There are countless small, insidious ways workplaces reinforce the fallacy of normal versus different. One way we recently realized we were contributing to the perception of non-binary people as “different” was how our office bathrooms were labeled: public “men’s” and “women’s” rooms, and a single-stall option for those who identified otherwise. We’ve since ditched the gender labels entirely, and replaced them with pictures on the door of what you can find in the bathrooms. Individuals can then choose any option.
Take time to examine what your culture assumes as “normal” and how that creates a separate, often invalidating, “different.” Then take action to change the system from an unequitable dichotomy to an equitable selection of options that affirms all identities and experiences.
It makes caring a company value. It’s one thing to ask people to care about their colleagues of their own accord. It’s another to elevate inclusivity to the level of a company value. It might seem like a small difference — after all, company values rely on individuals to live them, right? But by intentionally defining inclusivity as part of a company’s operating system, it becomes much easier to embed it at all points in the employee life cycle, from interviews to performance evaluations. And this deliberateness creates a self-reinforcing system over time, attracting like-minded people excited to live the value, and weeding out those who don’t.
National Coming Out Day is something to be celebrated — but the best future would be one where there’s no need to “come out” at all. Let’s work together to get there.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of HR&DigitalTrends.